Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Paracelsus: The Incomparable Physician
Einsiedeln is a small town in Switzerland. It is best known for its huge baroque basilika housing a black madonna, which attracts thousands of pilgrims annually.
But it was also the birthplace of one of the most original and colourful of all physicians - Paracelsus.
His true name was Phillippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. Notoriously a braggart, he took the pseudonym Paracelsus, meaning 'Beyond Celsus' - the classic Roman encyclopaedist of medicine.
Paracelsus was self-taught. He wrote about his own observations and interpretations. He travelled widely.
He studied the properties of minerals and worked in mines. He is recognised as perhaps the first systematic botanist. He pioneered the study of the medical uses of salts and minerals.
He documented the diseases of miners, and recognised the association of cretinism [the consequence of thyroid failure in babies] with endemic goitre [swelling of the thyroid gland in people living where iodine is deficient in the soil - usually mountain districts]. He wrote about diabetes mellitus.
He made important improvements to the surgery of wounds, based on his own experience, not the classic writers.
He is credited with original work in psychology.
He was a mystic. His universe is a complex single organism, whose life-giving creator spirit is God - a view towards which my own thoughts are trending.
Unfortunately his writings are obscure and difficult to read and understand. He practised astrology and alchemy, using symbols, ideas and allegories familiar to practitioners of those cryptic specialties, but impenetrable to the modern reader. He is also prone to extravagant and boastful claims.
So obscure is his vocabulary that a student wrote a Dictionarium Paracelsicum to help those struggling to elucidate his writings.
Paracelsus enraged the medical establishment. He wrote and taught in German, not Latin. He spoke of his own knowledge and ideas, ignoring the approved classics. He was forced to flee Basel, where he was briefly town physician, and spent his last decade a wanderer.
He was accused of keeping low company, and hard drinking.
In Einsiedeln today there is this memorial to Paracelsus, beside the great square in front of the basilika.
Here is the inscription on the base.
Here is a translation.
In memory of the physician, researcher and philosopher THEOPHRASTUS PARACELSUS:
father of chemotherapy;
promoter of biology and wound management;
saviour of those benighted in spirit;
champion of medical ethics;
independent thinker and humble follower of Christ;
friend of the poor.
Born at the end of 1493 near the Devil's Bridge at Etzel, he died after a Faustian life on 24 September 1541 in Salzburg.
Remembered in Einsiedeln, his home.
The right base carries his brief autobiography.
Which translates something like this - the German is dialect and archaic. His disclaimer of rhetoric must be considered ironic!
Because I can by no rhetoric or subtlety declare myself, but only in the language of my birth and dialect, I am from Einsiedeln region a Swiss.
Then I have wandered through the lands and become a foreigner in my time, alone and strange and other. There, O God, you have grown patiently your art under the breath of the fearful wind with pain in me.
And on the left base there are these quotations.
Let no man be other who can be himself.
Each one remains as a rock in his being.
The child needs no stars and no planets: his mother is his planet and his star.
Blessed and more than blessed is the man to whom God gives the grace of compassion.
The right door of medicine is the light of Nature.
The highest plane of medicine is Love.
Incomparable - there has been no other physician like him. But he is an example of an important principle.
No matter how original and important your observations and ideas may be, they are valuable only if you explain them clearly, simply and fluently.